Small group learning situations can have better results. Hundreds of studies have concluded that students learned more with small group instruction because students are more actively engaged than they are when they simply copy lecture notes (Nilson, 2010). Both struggling students and advanced students gain more when the advanced students help the struggling ones understand (Barkley, 2010).
While teaching elementary, I had some successful small groups. One year, I assigned an ecosystem project. After dividing the class into groups of four or five, I gave each an ecosystem and a collection of tasks to complete before a presentation to the class. One produced high quality work ahead of schedule.
As a team, they planned out all the work that needed to be done and assigned different people to tasks according to their interests and natural skills. The best writer in the group wrote the report while the best artist drew cards for a game and the other three worked on the three-dimensional model. They all finished before the deadline and spent the time reviewing the work, tweaking parts to make the project better, and making sure that anyone could give the presentation. In the end, they produced work well beyond the minimum expectations and retained more information the following year.
Unfortunately, many people have had terrible experiences with group work because of destructive subgroups and shirkers (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2008; Davis, 2009). However, when a group assignment goes as it should, students learn much more than they do in lecture classes. They are more actively involved and learn more by teaching each other (Nilson, 2010; Barkley, 2010). Structured correctly, the benefits of small group work outweigh the challenges.
Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (Rev.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Michaelsen, L. K., & Sweet, M. (2008). The essential elements of team-based learning. New Directions for Teaching & Learning, 2008(116), 7–27.
Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.